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On the streets of Oaxaca
Diversion #8: A photo workshop and the joys of lifelong learning.
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Lessons from Oaxaca
Street photography can be lonely. But that’s by design.
You generally produce stronger work in this corner of the photographic world—the corner of capturing candid, fleeting moments—by going solo, wandering a city anonymously, melting into crowds, holding a small, inconspicuous camera. Marching in a group with bulky SLRs and zoom lenses this is not.
Endless online collectives exist to fill in that camaraderie gap and build digital community among street photographers, but they always leave me unfulfilled. (I think I’m just really bored with social media.)
That’s why I love photo workshops: tight groups of passionate people coming together, in real life, to produce and critique each other’s work, guided by experienced teachers. Workshops are incredibly fun and effective—you can seriously improve your game if you open yourself up to the experience.
I first whet my workshop appetite in Paris last year, with a weekend hosted by the American photographer and Magnum member Richard Kalvar. (Key takeaway: ‘Get closer!’). And in February I cranked it up a notch and joined an intense 8-day workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico, led by none other than Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb.
This workshop was transformative—and not just for what I learned in the classroom.
Keep reading to see what I took away from the experience…
The images here were made in February 2023, in Oaxaca City and the villages of San Martín Tilcajete and San Jacinto Chilateca. Of the 7,517 frames I shot in Oaxaca on my Fuji X100V, the 18 numbered images below made it through the Webbs’ final cut.
The joys of lifelong learning
As I get older, I’ve become less interested in things and more interested in experiences. They just make me happier. (It’s backed by research, too). I just really don’t need that quirky direct-to-consumer product targeting me on Instagram. Maybe I did in 2018. Today, not so much. I’d rather spend my money on a delicious meal, a trip to somewhere amazing or, increasingly, learning a worthwhile skill.
While adult learning sounds like the mission of a technical college in the suburbs of Milwaukee, I’m talking about picking up and honing new skills—photography, surfing, baking a perfect focaccia, speaking Mandarin at the level of a toddler—by seeking out teachers and books and then practicing over and over again to improve.
There’s a great book about this by Tom Vanderbilt. And I return again and again to this line from the legendary sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with just doing your one thing, perfecting a single craft, and being content by it—let’s call this the Jiro Dreams of Sushi path. Many people find such a singular focus to be philosophically more admirable. But personally, I aspire to Heinlein’s view of a life well-lived.
Given all this, traveling to a place like Oaxaca to improve my game in a workshop hosted by two photographic giants really fit the bill. I’d been on the hunt for another workshop since Paris. And while there’s something sort of juvenile about having favorites (‘My favorite color is green. My favorite animal is a dolphin…’), Alex Webb is without a doubt my favorite photographer. To learn from both Alex and Rebecca—an incredible photographer with a totally different style than Alex’s (more on that below)—well, it wasn’t even a question of applying. I had to. I wrote a short essay, sent in a portfolio, and a few months later was thrilled to be accepted.
The format influences the results
The workshop was called Finding Your Vision—taught by the Webbs and organized by La Luz, a photo education company run by Selma Fernández Richter, a Oaxaca-born, Minneapolis-based photographer. Selma was on site directing the show in Oaxaca. She’s amazing. A pro.
Twenty photographers from around the world flew in for the workshop: designers, photography students, some working photographers, some serious amateurs, some with day jobs that have nothing at all to do with design or creativity. All ranging from their early 20s to 50s. A real cross-section. I became friends with some fascinating people—including Chloe Sherman, who’s soon to publish her first photobook about 1990s San Francisco; Neill dela Llana, the king of street photography in San Diego; Andy Butler, a Mexico City-based creative director; and other talented photographers like Edwin Carungay and Kemp Attwood.
This was our daily schedule, more or less, for 8 days:
Present to the class a tight edit (5 images max) of your previous day’s work.
Hear constructive criticism of your work from Alex and Rebecca.
Go out shooting by yourself for the afternoon, pursuing your personal vision of capturing Oaxaca City.
Edit your work in your hotel room at night (which, for me, meant culling ~1000 daily images down to ~5).
Drink mezcal, eat tacos and share stories till late.
Such a schedule almost forces you to improve. You don’t want be the person who hears valid criticism, then comes back the next day making the same mistakes. Healthy peer pressure is a hell of a way to sharpen your skills, push yourself and grow.
Learn to love criticism
99% of street photography is failure. That’s a thing people say. It’s in books. Alex and Rebecca said it, too. And it’s true. Some images, despite how much effort you put into making them, just don’t work. They don’t click. They don’t say something new or fresh or exciting. They just… are. One student presented a gorgeous image of a local Oaxacan craftsperson making something. By many respects it was a great shot. But was it bringing something new or interesting to the table? “It just is what it is,” Alex said, gently. “It doesn’t take us further.” He was right.
The Webbs liked many of my photos and didn’t like others. And that’s okay. The trick is to leave your ego at home, absorb every piece of advice thrown your way, and figure out how you’ll put it to good use to express yourself better. How can I use this feedback to say what I want to say more effectively?
You can ignore it, too. That’s also fine. But then… why are you here again?
Your vision needs to be your own
I’m naturally drawn to packed frames, big depth of field, multiple layers, complex compositions, strong shadows and patches of bright color. In other words, an Alex Webb photograph. Artists in their early years often imitate those they admire. Copying the masters is a good way to get into the flow, build muscle memory, see what works and what doesn’t. It helps you discover what kind of photographer you’re not. But as you open yourself up to chance and curiosity, you might eventually develop your own style. “How you photograph is directly related to who you are as a human being,” Alex explained.
But this takes time. Years and years. Some people never reach escape velocity from the imitation phase. (One can even make the case that every artist is just copying every other artist who came before, ad infinitum; that no style is truly unique. And they’d be completely correct. But let’s forget that for the moment.) I’ve been shooting street photography for a decade now and I like to think that I’m only just now developing my unique style—one I’m confident about.
“There’s a mystery and magic to the process”
One afternoon, I was camped out on a corner in an industrial neighborhood of Oaxaca City for maybe a half hour. The light was heavenly. The graphic red typeface was ace. People entered the frame from behind the corner, unaware of me, only to be snapped immediately. Brilliant. I took 100+ shots here. Many of which were pretty good!
But just when I thought job done and was about to continue wandering, a woman walks by with a kid in her arms. Wait… that’s actually a doll. A bizarre, creepy doll. And then Spider Man appeared from around the bend.
Weird things happen. Don’t question them. Thank the photography gods and move on.
One of the most interesting observations during the week was the creative partnership between Alex and Rebecca. The two share a website and an Instagram page. They hold workshops together. And they create joint books in which their photographs play off each other in subtle ways. It’s a real partnership.
Rebecca was originally a poet, which is very evident in her work. Open up My Dakota, inspired by her brother who died unexpectedly, or Night Calls, a meditation on fathers and daughters, and you’ll see what I mean. The images are deeply lyrical, focusing on people, animals and landscapes in a way that’s quite different to Alex.
Look at this haunting image of hers, of a giraffe in Paris. It’s perfect.
Aesthetically it appears to be in a different universe to Alex’s work. But when you reflect on it, and sit with their work side by side, you realize it’s actually in a parallel universe, as somehow they flow very well together. And that’s how their book Slant Rhymes came into the world. It’s 80 images, pairing one by Alex with one by Rebecca—they’re sort of visual rhymes that talk to one another.
They’ve produced other books together, like Brooklyn, Violet Isle, Memory City, and On Street Photography and the Poetic Image, which is a distillation of their views on working in the street and, in many ways, the foundation for their workshops.
It was also fun watching the two of them develop and deliver critiques of our work. They didn’t always agree. They’d whisper, debate, point, argue, and then come up with a useful joint critique that somehow absorbed their own disagreements. An art.
Be open to the experience
As in all travel experiences, unexpected things happen and you’ll enjoy yourself a thousand times more if you embrace it and double down on the unknown.
Oaxaca was no different. It’s a wonderful place. An hour after landing in the city, my taxi broke down on the side of the road, so I hopped in a colectivo van, a big taxi full of other people going in your general direction. I had hilarious conversations in very broken Spanish while Mexican party music blasted from the speaker. Then a gentle earthquake hit the city that night.
During the following week, I found myself in situations I couldn’t believe…
Swept up in a quinceañera with a 16-year-old princess in a pink dress on horseback and hundreds of well-wishers. In the center of a throbbing, smoky courtyard party celebrating Lent in a tiny 600-person village. Walking in carnival processions with drunk people in grotesque masks. Black devils popping out of side streets, scaring you before disappearing as fast as they arrived.
I loved it all.
The journey is the point
After the workshop ended and we all said our goodbyes, Oaxaca airport was hit with severe delays and cancellations. Some in the group, not wanting to miss work the next day, took a chance and drove rented cars to Mexico City. Most of us stuck it out at the airport, including Alex and Rebecca.
One by one, as the red cancellation signs turned green, we boarded flights. To places like New York, Ecuador, San Francisco, Cleveland, Seattle, Miami, North Carolina, Chicago. I hopped on a flight to LAX. Because of the delays, though, I missed my connecting flight, and spent a few miserable, sleep-deprived hours at a dodgy motel in a Mexico City suburb.
The next morning, I was back at the airport at 3am. Zero people were around. Janitors were cleaning the place. I used the quiet to reflect on the previous 8 days.
Then, from out of nowhere, Alex and Rebecca strolled in.
We all laughed.
And we spent the next hour in a completely empty terminal, tired but suddenly energized, having the best conversation of the week.
More Oaxaca images are on my website. You can check them out here, if you’re interested.
Thanks! —and until next time,
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